What are the best memoirs of all time? Discover the top bestselling memoirs that you need on your reading list.
There’s something so intimate about memoirs. When an author writes about their own life, you get an unparalleled insight into what they were thinking and feeling as momentous events occurred around them.
The best memoirs of all time aren’t just about the author’s life. They tie the narrative into greater themes that we can connect to individually.
When looking for the best memoirs to recommend, I wanted books that will stick with you long after you’ve read them. I searched through my past reads to find the best memoirs about death, life, and war to celebrity memoirs and even the best sports autobiographies.
From the best memoirs of 2022 to bestselling memoirs from decades ago, I wanted to give you a robust list of memoirs that belong on your reading list.
The Best Memoirs of All Time
Tara Westover grew up in the rural mountains of Idaho with no formal education. Despite her extremist survivalist parents and violent older brother, Westover managed to make her way into college, eventually earning a Ph.D. Her amazing determination is inspiring while the circumstances of her childhood are incredibly sad. One of the best memoirs of all time, Educated is one of those books that will stay with you for a long time.
Normally I wouldn’t recommend a celebrity memoir among the top memoirs because they usually have such a limited shelf life, but Trevor Noah’s life story is the exception to the rule. Telling of his formative years in South Africa during the last days of apartheid, Noah shows you a fascinating slice of history. With his ability to change accents and mimic his mother, Trevor Noah’s audio narration of the book wins him the award for the best audiobook of the decade.
As a therapist, Lori Gottlieb spent all day helping others with their problems. Yet, when her longtime boyfriend unexpectedly broke up with her, she found herself on the receiving end of therapy. Gottlieb’s memoir is top-notch with exceptional pacing, slyly weaving in explanations of therapy within the fascinating story of Gottlieb’s therapy sessions. You’ll quickly become attached to finding out what happens to her patients – a narcissistic tv producer, a dying newlywed, and a depressed senior citizen. A great book club book that highlights the importance of discussing mental health.
One of the best memoirs of recent years, The Glass Castle recounts Jeannette Walls’ tumultuous childhood. She opens the book with the account of how, at 3 years old, she ended up hospitalized with severe burns after pouring scalding water on herself when cooking hot dogs for lunch. You meet her charming father Rex, equal measures brilliant and paranoid; her mother Rose, selfish and depressed; and her three siblings, trying their best just to survive. To quote my husband, “Sometimes someone’s train wreck of a life is fascinating.”
In grad school, Phil Knight had a crazy idea that Japanese running shoes could overtake the domination of German company Adidas. He partnered up with his former track coach to help design innovative shoes and traveled to Japan to bring this crazy idea to life. Following the ups and downs of the journey that built the billion-dollar company Nike is today, Knight’s memoir will hook you in with a band of eccentric characters and an underdog story with excellent narrative pacing.
I don’t even like dogs, and I loved this book, which is why it unequivocably earns its place among the best memoirs. The antics of Marley, the world’s worst dog, are simply hilarious. Even more, the love that springs up between Marley and his owner despite Marley’s many flaws is so touching. A great reminder for you to be grateful for the love of four-legged friends in your life. When Marley eventually dies of old age, you’ll be in tears at the wonderful life of “the world’s worst dog.”
The Best Memoirs 2022
Both vulnerable and hilarious, Jennette McCurdy’s tell-all memoir sends a poignant message of the dangers of child acting. McCurdy brilliantly embraces her inner child by describing how desperately she wanted to please her mom by acting, even if it lead to an eating disordered and a chaotic relationship with her family that she didn’t fully understand until attending therapy after her mother’s death.
Growing up in a small town in El Salvador, Javier Zamora watched his father and mother both migrate to the United States when he was very young. When he turned nine, Javier left the protection of his extended family to reunite with his parents. Traveling alone with strangers with the help of a “coyote,” Javier’s two-week journey turns into a two-month trek full of danger and uncertainty and the kindness of the strangers he was traveling with.
The powerful memoir from actress and producer Viola Davis about finding herself. From her roots in a rundown apartment in Rhode Island to center stage in New York, Davis constantly had to find the courage to forget the judgment of the world and fall in love with herself. An Oprah Winfrey book club pick, Finding Me is one of the best memories of 2022 so far.
Known for his role as Chandler Bing on Friends, Matthew Perry gives a behind-the-scenes look at the hit sitcom. Yet, while his career was hitting a high, Perry struggled through some of his darkest days. In this candid memoir, Perry discusses his lifelong battle with addiction and the persistence, hope, and friends who helped him along the way.
Rejecting the capitalistic path of others, Brianna Madia always sought to take the road less traveled. So she bought a beat-up orange van named Bertha and set out to travel the deserts of the American West with two dogs and her husband. Madia’s journey – from married to single and from lost to found – is about more than #vanlife or minimalism; it’s a memoir that explores both the outer world and her inner self.
Recent Memoirs to Read
Qian Julie Wang
When Qian was seven years old, her family immigrated to the United States. As her parents struggled to cope with the transition from respected professors to “illegal” sweatshop laborers, Qian tries to find her place in a new world. Highlighting the dichotomy of coming to America for free speech but being afraid to speak, this moving coming-of-age memoir brings home the reality of the immigrant experience in the US.
The bestselling memoir from the owner and chef of an acclaimed restaurant in Maine tells of the challenges of finding your voice and rebuilding a life. Growing up in rural Maine, Erin French fell in love with food while working at her father’s diner. After dropping out of college when she got pregnant, French eventually established her own successful restaurant. When a crumbling marriage and addiction cause her to lose it all, French manages to slowly rebuild her personal and culinary life and find solace in the food she loves. A stunning memoir, French’s down-to-earth writing will cut straight to anyone’s heart while foodies will love her luscious culinary descriptions.
Former United States President Barack Obama’s 700+ page memoir came out days after the 2020 presidential election. Describing his political journey, Obama recounts the grassroots movement that helped him rise to the presidency and details the politics and diplomacy from his term in office. Along with intimate insights into his presidency, Obama thoughtfully ponders the reach and limits of presidential power.
The celebrated actor, producer, and musician describes his transformation from a terrified child in West Philadelphia to a well-known rapper and an all-star actor. Yet, at the top of his game, Smith still felt lost, realizing that despite his outer accomplishments, he still needed to work on his inner self. Admittedly, all of Will Smith’s Oscars drama will give the reader a different perspective on his bestselling memoir.
I don’t usually recommend celebrity memoirs, but for Alex Trebek, I would always make an exception. For over three decades, Trebek hosted the trivia game show Jeopardy before his death this fall. Grateful for the outflowing of support after his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer last year, Trebek finally decided to write a memoir. Full of personal anecdotes and Jeopardy trivia, you’ll get an insightful look at a man who became an icon in American pop culture.
One of the highest-selling books of recent years, Michelle Obama’s memoir is easily one of the best memoirs to read. Detailing her childhood on the South Side of Chicago, her success as a working mother, and her years in the White House, Michelle Obama shows how her past has shaped her into who she has become today. A poignant memoir of a woman trying to do her best for her family while balancing the greater good of having a husband in politics, Obama’s story is a remarkable tale no matter what your political affiliation.
After writing about recovering from a marriage rocked by infidelity in Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle has a new memoir about her love story with US soccer star Abby Wambach. Doyle details how she found herself by realizing her true power comes from within and not from the expectations others put on her. If you’ve read Love Warrior, you’ll have an interesting time discussing the public face we put on our lives. If you haven’t, you’ll still have a great time debating how much you agree with Doyle’s opinions.
Living in Pakistan as the Taliban took over her valley, Malala’s advocacy for women’s education led her to international recognition and an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Her autobiography will inspire you to stand up for your beliefs because one ordinary girl can change the world.
When Oprah Winfrey relaunched her book club in 2012, she started with Strayed’s inspiring memoir. Sometimes it takes doing something crazy, like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, for you to truly put your life in order. By 22, Cheryl Strayed’s life felt out of control, so she decided to make a life-changing decision to hike the PCT. You’ll laugh at Strayed’s mishaps, be in awe had her stupidity and bravery, and, if you are like me, really want to go for a hike.
As a young idealistic lawyer, Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice defending the most desperate of clients. Over the years, he helped the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women with nowhere else to turn. One case, in particular, stands out: Walter McMillian, a young man on death row who insists he is innocent, and very well may be. Stevenson inspires his readers to consider how compassion is needed for true justice to be served.
Just because it’s a bestselling memoir, doesn’t mean I like it. Yet, given its popularity, I didn’t feel I couldn’t at least mention Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular memoir. Elizabeth Gilbert details her journey of self-discovery as she eats her way through Italy, studies meditation in India, and finds love in Indonesia was not for me. In my opinion, watching a 30-second segment of Julia Roberts eating glorious food in Italy is entertaining. Having Gilbert drone on about it for chapters is boring. I feel as if I got conned into paying for the vacation of a very whiny rich lady. But maybe you’ll disagree.
J. D. Vance
First off, you need to understand that J. D. Vance’s memoir is not about life in rural Kentucky as I often see erroneously stated. Instead, it’s about his family life in Southwestern Ohio and how the Hillbilly culture and ethics his grandparents brought from rural Kentucky affected the lives and choices of his grandparents, parents, and even himself. Having grown up in that same region of Ohio, I can say that many of his observations ring true. While you might not agree with all of Vance’s conclusions, he has certainly started a conversation, forcing readers to ponder how culture affects us and what heritage you will pass down to your children.
Stephen King’s classic book is a must-read for any writer. The first half of the book is a fascinating memoir of King’s journey to becoming a writer. Then, in the second half of the book, King explains his writing process as well as his editing process. Learning to omit unnecessary words, especially adverbs, will help any writer, but also gives interesting insights to readers, as well.
Best Memoirs About Death and Grief
At only 36 years old, Dr. Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Suddenly, he found himself thrust from the role of a neurosurgeon to that of a dying patient. Coming face-to-face with his mortality, Kalanithi decided to write his memoir and wrestle with the question: “What makes life worth living in the face of dying?” Easily one of the best memoirs of the decade, When Breath Becomes Air will likely make you sob uncontrollably.
I can’t begin to describe how incredible this book is. Instead of telling you her life story, Maggie O’Farrell gives you glimpses into her life through separate incidents where she brushed against death, which has occurred surprisingly often. From a childhood illness to near-fatal accidents to miscarriage, O’Farrell gives you such an intriguing look not just at how she has almost died, but more importantly how she has lived. If you are willing to listen to an audiobook, the narrator on this one is exceptional.
On a December morning in 2004, a tsunami struck Sri Lanka, killing Sonali Deraniyagala’s parents, husband, and children. Wave loads page upon page of tragedy. Deraniyagala describes the loss of her family and the difficult journey she had to create a new life for herself. Many readers have called this the saddest book ever, so be prepared for a deep look at how one woman has learned to process her almost unbearable pain.
A powerful memoir about growing up a Korean American from the indie singer known for her Japanese Breakfast project. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, Michelle Zauner struggled to fit in as the only Asian-American student in high school, burdened by the high expectations of her mother. Moving East, she began working in the restaurant industry and joined a fledgling band. But not until her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis did Zauner feel like she discovered her identity and understood her Koreanness.
After graduating from college, Suleika Jaouad was excited to enter “the real world” as a war correspondent in Paris. But an itch turned to exhaustion and a diagnosis of leukemia with only a 35% chance of survival. Jaouad spent the next four years in the hospital battling cancer and writing about it for The New York Times. Yet, once she was cured, she felt even more lost than ever. So she embarked on a road trip across the country to find herself in one of the best memoirs of 2021.
It was love at first sight when Tembi Locke met her husband Saro in Florence, Italy. Yet, his traditional Sicilian family did not approve of him marrying a Black American actress. After a joyful life in LA with their lovely adopted daughter, Tembi patches things up with Saro’s family only to lose Saro to cancer. Locke’s touching memoir describes three summers she spends with Saro’s family in Italy after his death, where she finds solace and healing.
The Best War Memoirs
Elie Wiesel’s story is a heart-wrenching account that shows no mercy. Sent to the German concentration camp of Auschwitz with his father, Wiesel gives a no holds bar recollection of the horror he faced. You’ll find yourself gripped to the page at the absolute devastation the Holocaust inflicted on a teenage boy. It is our responsibility to read books like this, no matter how depressing, so that truly understand the horror of these events to ensure they don’t happen again.
With the Nazis occupying Holland, thirteen-year-old Jewish girl Anne Frank and her family went into hiding in the secret annex of an old office building. For two years, they hid with another family until they were betrayed to the Gestapo. Anne Frank’s diary gives a moving account of how a teenager experienced these world-shattering events and teaches of the Holocaust in such an intimate manner.
Serving as a Navy SEAL in the Iraq war for over a decade, Chris Kyle was the deadliest sniper in American military history. Kyle’s autobiography is a frank account of his life – from his roots as a Texas cowboy to his four tours in Iraq with the SEALs. The ghostwriters did an excellent job leaving the story in Kyle’s voice while giving it needed structure. Kyle’s story is unapologetically his own, an unvarnished account of his experiences, with lots of f-bombs to go with it.
Audie Murphy was one of the most decorated soldiers in World War II, earning basically every honor possible including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Reading his book, I came to the part describing his account of the actions that earned him the Medal of Honor, and he made it sound like it was no big deal. He single-handedly held off a whole company of German soldiers for more than an hour. But he just did what had to be done. That’s the true mark of a hero. Interestingly enough, after World War II, Audie Murphy went on to become a movie star, even starring in the film adaptation of his autobiography.
Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
Clemantine Wamariya was only six years old in 1994 when the Rwandan civil war led to an unbelievable genocide in her home country. For six years, Clemantine and her fifteen-year-old sister traveled through seven African countries, trying to find safety and refuge. After being granted asylum in the United States, Clemantine and Claire settle in Chicago where they face different attitudes and take different paths in this moving memoir about the aftermath of war.
Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson
In 2005, four Navy SEALs were tasked with capturing or killing a notorious al Qaeda leader near the Pakistani border in Operation Redwing, a mission that ended in disaster. Of the four SEALS, Marcus Luttrell was the only one left alive. When a helicopter sent to rescue him is also shot down, Luttrell fought off assassins and crawled seven miles until he found shelter with a Pashtun tribe. In a moving tribute to his teammates who made the ultimate sacrifice, Luttrell writes of modern warfare and the cost of being the lone survivor.
Corrie Ten Boom
What would you do if you noticed your neighbors suddenly disappearing? A quiet old maid living with her older sister and elderly father, Corrie ten Boom knew that she had to act. During World War II, her family joined the Dutch Underground and built a secret room to hide Jews within, for which they were to pay the ultimate price. Corrie ten Boom’s heartrending account of her life will inspire you to have faith, hope, and courage no matter what obstacles you may face.
Must-Read Memoirs by Black Authors
Nelson Mandela’s inspiring autobiography of his life as he evolved from a freedom fighter to a political prisoner to a great leader testifies of the refining power of transformation through struggle and gives hope that our struggles are not in vain.
Melba Patillo Beals
We’ve all seen the pictures of Elizabeth Eckford being screamed at as she tries to attend her first day of school at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. But did you realize how long it took to integrate? Melba Pattillo Beals tells her memories of being part of the Little Rock Nine: of her oppressing junior year protected at times by the 101st Airborne Division and at times left alone to face the horrors laid upon them by the other students.
Poet Maya Angelou’s memoir of the early years of her life is touching and heartbreaking all at the same time. Growing up with her grandmother in a small Southern town, she details how affecting the segregation was as a young black girl, as well as the feeling of abandonment from her mother. Covering many hard topics – including her sexual assault at a young age – I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing makes my list of the best memoirs of all time.
Written as a letter to his son, Between the World and Me explores what it means to be Black in America. Coates skillfully switches between larger concepts of racism in American history and the pain of racist violence to more personal concerns between a father and son. Part autobiographical and part history lesson, Between the World and Me is an honest look at what it means to be Black.
Largely forgotten and believed to be a work of fiction, historians in the 1980s finally proved that Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was Harriett Jacobs’s memoir of her life as a slave. Told in a brilliantly clear and compelling narrative, Jacob shines the light on the hypocrisy and sexual abuse inherent in master-slave relationships. Eventually, Jacobs escapes, living in hiding in an attic for seven years before moving to the North.
Roxane Gay has made a name for herself among contemporary Black female authors with her bestselling collection of essays, Bad Feminist. In her poignant memoir, Gay focuses on her weight and self-image. After being raped as a child, Gay used food and an overweight body as a shield. Speaking with candor on the realities of being obese in America and the conflict between self-love and self-care, Gay’s opinions are raw and honest and complicated.
Growing up as an African-American in both South Carolina and New York during the 1960-70s, Jacqueline Woodson never truly felt at home in either place. Caught between the highly urban New York and the Southern views of South Carolina, she learned to find a place in the world by balancing the best of each. Told in enchanting verse, the story of her childhood is poignant and moving. I’m not usually one for poetry, but Woodson’s eloquent lines bring her story to life.
Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey offers a memoir on his approach to getting the most satisfaction out of life. McConaughey poured over decades of his diaries to share the highs and lows of his life and the funny stories that shaped him along the way.
Known for his work as a drummer for Nirvana and the founder of The Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl reflects on how much life has changed from his childhood in Springfield, Virginia. Reflecting on his fame, Grohl focuses on his love of the music that has underscored his life.
If you are looking for the best memoirs that will make you laugh, Bossypants should be at the top of your list. Comedian Tina Fey’s memoir shows she is a perfect example of a fierce female – a woman who knows what she wants, is willing to admit her faults, and is determined to show everyone that women can be just as good at comedy as any man.
Before Anthony Bourdain became a household name as a chef and travel documentarian, his breakout memoir launched him into an instant celebrity. Full of chocking wild-but-true tales from the world of haute cuisine, Kitchen Confidential is a startling expose of the culinary industry.
Shonda Rhimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and literally all of ABC’s Thursday night lineup, realized that, though at the top of her career, she wasn’t happy. When her sister observed, “You never say yes to anything,” Shonda discovers her sister is correct. She has let fear hold her back. You’ll find Rhimes’ account at times hilarious and at the time deeply touching. It makes you wonder what you are letting hold you back and belongs at the top of the list of great books by contemporary Black female writers.
Actor and foodie Stanley Tucci takes you behind the recipes from his bestselling cookbooks to tell of his life growing up in an Italian-American family. Tucci describes how food has overlayed his life, from preparing for the films he’s starred and directed in to helping his wife cook for their growing family.
Best Sports Autobiographies
While writing a story about the overcrowding on Mt. Everest, investigative journalist Jon Krakauer got much more than he expected. Climbing to the summit on May 10, 1996, Krakauer’s group was engulfed by a storm that ended up claiming five lives. With his firsthand account of the glories and dangers of climbing Mt. Everest, Krakauer will have you gripped to the page as you follow along with his expedition. This heartstopping modern classic that anyone with an outdoor mindset will love has certainly earned a place among the best memoirs of all time.
Considered one of the best sports memoirs of all time, The Game pays the ultimate tribute to the sport of hockey. A former goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and the former President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Dryden gives an unparalleled look at the legendary Canadiens in the 1970s. Along with thoughtful insights into Dryden’s life, the Game shows an intimate behind-the-scenes perspective of professional hockey.
After retiring from professional basketball, Kobe Bryant decided to share an intimate look at how he approached the game. Discussing the steps he took to mentally and physically prepare to excel at his chosen sport, Bryant provides a unique perspective from one of basketball’s greatest players.
As head coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson won more championships than any other coach in sports history. Jackson’s memoir describes his childhood as a preacher’s kid in North Dakota, and how he incorporated psychology and philosophy into his coaching to inspire his players. With plenty of details on the legendary players from his championship-winning teams, Jackson gives a fascinating inside look at the NBA.
All baseball fans should read Jackie Robinson’s firsthand account of becoming the first Black man to play major league baseball. Robinson details his early athletic success at UCLA, his years in the army during World War II fighting Jim Crow laws, and his frustrations with the Negro Leagues. Robinson describes the fateful day when Branch Rickley took a chance on him and also describes his post-baseball life and desires.
What are the Best Memoirs You’ve Ever Read?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my list of the Best Memoirs? What memoirs would you add to the list? As always, let me know in the comments!
More Nonfiction Books to Read: